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BOGOTA, Colombia — A week ago, the Colombian peace talks were under way with some hopes that the government and Colombia's largest leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, might agree to a truce in April. But all this changed Feb. 20, and now the prospect that fighting will escalate even more is becoming a reality.
President Andres Pastrana made a dramatic announcement on Feb. 20, saying he would not continue the three-year-old peace process with the FARC. He went on to blame the leftist guerrillas for, as he put it, "shutting the door" on a solution to Colombia's 38-year conflict.
The immediate cause for Pastrana's action was the hijacking of a commercial plane earlier in the day by the rebels. After forcing the plane to land, the guerrillas kidnapped a senator who was on board. All this took place near the huge demilitarized zone that had been set up in southern Colombia in 1998 to facilitate peace talks.
But the hijacking was just one of a series of FARC actions over the past three years that had led most Colombians to give up hope that the guerrillas would ever agree to stop fighting. Attacks, kidnappings, and other actions continued unabated during the three years the two sides were negotiating.
A human rights group, Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, estimates more people were killed in warfare while the talks were under way than before. It says the conflict was responsible for the deaths of 12 people a day in January 1999 when the talks formally opened. Over the next three years, the human rights group says this figure rose by 66 percent, to 20 people killed per day, most of them civilians. This includes fighting between the government and the FARC, the violence perpetrated by rightwing paramilitary groups and actions by rightwing paramilitary groups, and those of a second smaller leftist rebel group, the ELN.
For its part, the FARC maintains that since no truce had ever been signed it is still at war against the Colombian government.
But a former government peace negotiator, Daniel Garcia Pena, says the rebels may have ignored the consequences of their actions. "Strictly speaking within the viewpoint of the FARC until they were to sign agreements that would prohibit actions like these they considered that they could continue acting like they did before, even though kidnapping and hijacking airplanes are violations of international humanitarian law," he said.
"These have been things that they've been doing for a long time, so they considered that until they signed a cease-fire agreement these kinds of actions were acceptable. But without a doubt the long series of abuses and actions on their part as well as the
|international climate after Sept.
11, they either did not take it into account or simply ignore the consequences."
The peace process was also undermined as the FARC used its safe haven, which was the size of Switzerland, to launch attacks, hold kidnap victims and raise revenues from drug cultivation and trafficking. Over the years, President Pastrana came close to suspending the talks — but each time a last minute accord would save it.
Jan. 20 just as the Pastrana government was about to dissolve the rebel enclave, the two sides agreed to discuss a truce that would lead to concrete accords by early April.
But now, with government troops retaking control of the former enclave, the conflict is bound to escalate. The FARC, which numbers some 17,000 fighters, has stepped up its attacks against Colombia's infrastructure, including downing power lines that have left many areas without electricity.
Analyst Alfredo Rangel warns these attacks will increase even more markedly in the months ahead. Rangel told the El Tiempo newspaper rebel actions such as destroying bridges may even affect Colombia's export sector by seriously disrupting the transport of petroleum and coffee.
Other analysts agree. But analyst Bernardo Gutierrez, who works for a non-governmental organization, Medios Para la Paz, does not expect a total war that would seriously destabilize Colombia. He said the FARC does not have the capacity for destabilizing Colombia. But, he said, the guerrillas do have the capabilities of creating a lot of damage and inflicting a lot of pain. He went on to warn there may be an upsurge of attacks in the cities.
The FARC has said it is willing to resume peace talks, but with a future government. Presidential elections will be held in May, and the winner will take office in August. Meanwhile, the Pastrana government is pursuing peace talks with the ELN, but those negotiations are being held in Havana.
Garcia Pena, who was the government peace negotiator from 1995 to 1998 during the previous Samper administration, is not optimistic about an end to the Colombian conflict any time soon. "The tragedy of the Colombian wars is that today the guerrillas are stronger than ever, the paramilitaries are stronger ever, and the Colombia army is stronger than ever," he said.
"So we have three very powerful fighting machines that are ready to go at it, and so I think that in military terms these years have not meant the parties have stopped or have suspended their acquisition of arms or training of soldiers and so forth, so we're up against some very powerful organizations."
Most Colombians appear to understand this, though few apparently disagree with President Pastrana's decision last week.
|Brooklyn native gets
women’s group post
Special to A.M. Costa Rica
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Bush Administration has appointed Rita DiMartino to be its principal delegate to the Inter-American Commission of Women, a specialized agency of the Organization of American States.
The Brooklyn, N. Y., native is a nationally recognized expert on Hispanic affairs, with a career that includes membership in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the Inter-American Foundation Advisory Board, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the Cuban-American National Council, and the Executive Board of the United Nations Children's Education Fund. She formerly served as vice chairman of the Hispanic Council on Foreign Relations and is serving now as vice president of congressional relations for AT&T Corp.
DiMartino called the OAS women's commission, established in 1928, "a pioneer in advancing the human rights of women and gender equality in the Americas for nearly 75 years," according to an OAS release. She said the commission's focus on women contributes "to the freedom and prosperity of all the citizens of this hemisphere."
Special to A.M. Costa Rica
WASHINGTON, D.C. — At 31, Sara Manley Harvey had a high-powered job in New York City as a telecommunications analyst.
But there was much more to her life than that. She made use of her spare time by volunteering to raise money for thousands of Nicaragua's most impoverished children.
That was, until she became one of the more than 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Now her family and friends will memorialize her charity work for Nicaragua by having a lunch hall/multi-use center in the rural community of Somoto, Nicaragua, dedicated in her name.
Mrs. Harvey was married for exactly one month when her life ended suddenly after a hijacked jet smashed into her office at New York's World Trade Center. She will be remembered for raising funds from the mid-1990s onward for the Fabretto Children's Foundation, a non-profit charity where she and her new husband Bill first met as volunteers. The foundation was named for the Italian missionary Rafael Maria Fabretto.
Disturbed by the poverty he encountered after coming to Nicaragua in the 1950s, Fabretto founded a group of children's homes in the country's rugged northern region.
Two ceremonies in Nicaragua will pay tribute to Mrs. Harvey. One is targeted for April 27 in Somoto when the lunch hall is formally dedicated.
But because the town is so hard to reach from Managua, Mrs. Harvey will have an April 26 ceremony in her honor at the Nicaraguan capital. Nicaragua's President Enrique Bolanos Geyer, U.S. embassy officials, and children of the community are among those invited to the events.
U.N. team to Africa
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
The United Nations refugee agency is sending a team to West Africa to investigate allegations of widespread sexual exploitation of young refugees by aid workers.
The U.N. team will visit Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia after a study found evidence that nearly 70 aid workers for 40 agencies have exploited child refugees, mostly girls.
The study, commissioned by the British relief group Save the Children and the U.N. refugee agency, indicates that aid workers — most of them local — have provided food, medicine and other services to refugees in exchange for sex. The initial findings of the study were released Tuesday.
In a statement Wednesday, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan repeated a policy of zero tolerance for anyone employed or affiliated with the United Nations who is responsible for child abuse.
The spokesman said Annan is shocked and disturbed at the child abuse allegations. He said the secretary-general intends to act forcefully and quickly if the allegations are confirmed.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by conflicts spilling across the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Many of the displaced survive only through the help of aid agencies.
Dengue fever hits
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Health workers here are struggling to contain a dengue fever epidemic that has left at least 20 people dead and 44,000 others infected with the mosquito-borne illness.
Health officials say Rio de Janeiro state has been hardest hit, and that hospitals there have been packed with sufferers waiting as long as nine hours to see a doctor. They warn the worst is yet to come.
Authorities also say the epidemic has sent demand for blood transfusions soaring and that if blood supplies run out, hospitals will be asked to postpone all but emergency surgeries. The epidemic follows a period of heavy rains that provided breeding grounds for the white-spotted mosquito.
Thousands of firefighters and volunteers have joined the Brazilian army in mobilizing to eliminate possible breeding areas for the dengue-carrying mosquitoes.
The most common form of dengue fever causes severe headaches, joint and muscle pain, a lack of appetite and fatigue. Usually, it is not deadly and most sufferers recover within one week. Some people, however, can develop the potentially fatal hemorrhagic dengue. There is no vaccine for the disease.
Sufferers are told to drink fluids and rest until the symptoms pass.
The dengue outbreak may have political repercussions in Brazil. Critics have blasted former Health Minister Jose Serra for allowing the situation to spread out of control. Serra, who recently stepped down to run for president, is being dubbed the "presidengue."
|Rival marches held
in Venezuelan capital
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
Thousands of supporters and opponents of Venezuela's president have staged rival marches in Caracas on the 13th anniversary of deadly food riots that rocked the country.
Supporters of President Hugo Chavez Wednesday marched toward the presidential palace in downtown Caracas, while anti-Chavez forces moved toward the Congress. Police and national guardsmen were deployed to prevent the two groups from clashing.
The president's supporters recalled what became known as the "Caracazo" riots in late February 1989, after the government of then-President Carlos Andres Perez decided to raise fuel and transportation prices. The incidents were considered the beginning of a movement to oust decades of corrupt governments.
But government critics said the 1989 events marked a sad episode in Venezuela's history, when the military committed atrocities. Hundreds of people died during the clashes.
The anti-government protest Wednesday was called by the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela and supported by business leaders unhappy with government policies. The demonstrations came two days after Air Force Gen. Roman Gomez Ruíz joined the chorus of demands that the president resign.
Ruíz is the fourth military officer in the span of one month to have called for President Chavez to step down. The officers have expressed concern over what they say is the manipulation of the armed forces by the president.
Chavez was elected in 1998 on an anti-poverty, anti-corruption platform but his approval rating has plunged in recent months. But his critics accuse Chavez of promoting class division and feuding with the Roman Catholic Church.
In Washington, the Bush Administration expressed its opposition to any attempt to depose President Chavez before his term is completed, calling upon all parties should respect Venezuela's democratic institutions.
Chavez insists there is no risk of a military coup. Three of the dissenting
officers have faced internal disciplinary hearings.
Space shuttle trip
By the A.M. Costa Rica wire services
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The launch of the space shuttle Columbia has been postponed for 24 hours due to low temperatures.
NASA managers decided to delay the flight until Friday after reviewing the weather forecast for launch time which projects the temperature to be 38 degrees Celsius. That is at the margin of the acceptable limit in combination with the predicted wind speed and relative humidity.
The forecast for another launch attempt early Friday morning calls for a temperature that is 10 degrees Celsius warmer.
Columbia and its seven astronauts will conduct an 11-day mission to make repairs and upgrades to the Hubble space telescope. The crew will replace solar panels and install a new camera expected to greatly improve the Hubble's range of vision.
The riskiest procedure involves shutting down the telescope's power to conduct repairs. If power to the telescope is not restored in time, it could be rendered useless. The Hubble was launched in 1990 and orbits 600 kilometers above Earth.
This shuttle flight does not involved Franklin Chang-Diaz, the Costa Rican-born astronaut. He is not scheduled to fly until May 2 aboard Shuttle Endeavor, which will carry equipment and a new three-person crew to the International Space Station.
Some progress noted
Special to A.M. Costa Rica
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights opened its regular session Monday, pointing to "some progress" in human rights in Latin America but noted "a serious backward step in many instances."
Commission Chairman Juan Méndez inaugurated the 114th session at the Organization of American States Headquarters, citing such progress as the entrenchment of democratic regimes in the hemisphere, a more organized civil society sector and the progressive development of international law.
But Méndez argued that longstanding problems remained, such as impunity with regard to human rights violations (torture and extra-judicial executions); judicial branches that are underdeveloped in most countries of the region; and threats to the independence and impartiality of the judiciary in certain countries. "A significant part of Latin America lives in extreme poverty — a situation that generally violates all individual human rights," Méndez explained.
Turning to current problems facing the region, Méndez said the Organization of American States human rights agency remains "very concerned about the situation in Colombia and is keeping it under observation." Saying he hopes the Colombian peace process will be resumed, Méndez called on all the parties involved in the conflict to respect the pertinent rules of international humanitarian law and human rights.
The commission continues to monitor the human rights situation in Cuba and Haiti, he noted as well, adding that in recent years notable progress has been made in setting inter-American standards for human rights protection. He conceded that limited financial resources remain a basic hindrance to the work of human rights institutions.
The Human Rights Commission remains in session until March 15, and will hold 56 hearings on cases before it.
Police have likeness of suspect
Police say they have a computer-generated composite drawing of a man believed to have been in the company of a 5-year-old girl who vanished a week ago.
The girl is Jessica Valverde Pineda, who lives in Los Guidos de Desamparados. As A.M. Costa Rica said Wednesday, the report that the girl was seen with a man before she vanished is one of several conflicting reports police have. The composite was generated by the memory of one person who said he was a witness.
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